Evolution in the News - October 2007
by Do-While Jones

The O2 Paradox

Oxygen is one of those nasty bits of reality that insists on inserting itself into the fantasy world of the evolutionists.

Eventually, we are going to tell you about a recent news story concerning an evolutionary fable about the rise of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. But first, we need to give you some background so you will understand why the story is important.

The oxygen paradox appears and reappears rather regularly in the scientific literature, but doesn’t get a lot of play in the public media. That may be partly because it gets a little bit complicated in places, but mostly because it raises questions evolutionists don’t want to address. We won’t bore you with all the technical details. We will just give you enough information so you can appreciate why the evolutionists have such a problem. Oxygen in the atmosphere causes problems for the evolutionists on a general level as well as a specific level.

Generally speaking, evolutionists believe, “The present is the key to the past.” That’s their mantra. They believe that the physical forces and natural laws observable today have always operated in the same way, and at the same rates, as in the past.

Their general problem is that they can’t explain the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere today using natural processes that can be observed today, preferably at rates observed today.

Their specific problem is that they have to invent some sort of plausible explanation for the amount of oxygen in the air using natural processes that aren’t happening today. Consequently they have to turn to tall tales that are whoppers, even by evolutionary standards.

Where Did O2 Come From?

In summary, here is the evolutionists’ problem: They believe the Big Bang created an awful lot of hot hydrogen atoms disbursed rather uniformly throughout the universe. As the universe expanded and cooled, clouds of hydrogen gas condensed into stars. (They aren’t really sure why, because gravity won’t do the job at such a high temperature and low pressure, but it must have happened somehow.) After a while, some of the stars exploded, and the explosion forced the hydrogen atoms into each other, creating all the other atomic elements. All these heavier atoms were floating around in space, and those atoms in our neighborhood formed the Earth and the other planets in our solar system. Details about how that happened are sketchy, but it must have happened somehow.

We’ve glossed over a lot of details, but so do the evolutionists. They gloss over the details because they run into contradictions with physical laws when they try. We gloss over them because we don’t want to lose you before we even begin to talk about the oxygen paradox.

We choose to begin at the point in the evolutionary fable where all these heavier elements have somehow bumped into each other, stuck together, and formed the Earth. The Earth, at this point, consists of water, rocks, and air. So, let’s ask ourselves, “What was the composition of the water back then?” Since the present is the key to the past, and since water is now H2O, we believe that water has always been H2O. That seems to be a pretty good scientific assumption. Every molecule of water consists of two hydrogen atoms, and one oxygen atom. Therefore, water has always been made of oxygen.

What about the rocks? Today many rocks are made up of granite, limestone, and marble.

Granite is an interesting rock. It is speckled because it is made up of quartz, feldspar, and mica, in various amounts. The chemical formula for quartz is SiO2. That means every molecule of quartz contains two oxygen atoms (and a silicon atom). There are three kinds of feldspar. Their chemical formulae are KAlSi2O8, CaAlSi2O8, and NaAl2Si2O8. All three kinds of feldspar contain eight oxygen atoms (plus two silicon atoms, one or two aluminum atoms, and one potassium, calcium, or sodium atom). There are lots of different kinds of mica. Their chemical formulae all end in O10(OH)2. That means every mica molecule contains 12 oxygen atoms.

Marble is basically cooked limestone. Limestone is made up of Calcite (CaC03) and Dolomite (CaMg(C03)2). So, limestone and marble contain one or two carbonate groups, which means there are either three or six oxygen atoms in every molecule of limestone or marble.

Chemical analysis tells us that common rocks today contain lots of oxygen atoms. Since the present is the key to the past, it is only reasonable to assume that rocks on Earth have always contained lots of oxygen atoms.

We said the Earth consists of water, rocks, and air. Water today is made up of oxygen atoms. Rocks today are made up of oxygen atoms. What about the air?

According to a NASA web site,

Composition of the Atmosphere

The atmosphere is primarily composed of Nitrogen (N2, 78%), Oxygen (O2, 21%), and Argon (Ar, 1%). A myriad of other very influential components are also present which include the water (H2O, 0 - 7%), "greenhouse" gases or Ozone (O, 0 - 0.01%), Carbon Dioxide (CO2, 0.01-0.1%). 1

Since the present is the key to the past, and since the air is now about 21% oxygen, it must always have been about one fifth oxygen, right? But evolutionists believe there was a time when there was no oxygen in the air. Why do they believe that? If all these oxygen atoms just bumped into each other to make the Earth, how could all of them have wound up in the water and rocks? Why wouldn’t any of them make up the atmosphere?

It is time to let the evolutionists start telling their tale.

In the beginning, Earth was devoid of oxygen, and then life arose from nonlife. As that first life evolved over a billion years, it began to produce oxygen, but not enough for the life-energizing gas to appear in the atmosphere. Was green scum all there was to life, all there ever would be? Apparently, yes, unless life and nonlife could somehow work together to oxygenate the planet from the atmosphere to the deep sea. 2

Historians of oxygen have always agreed on one thing: Earth started out with no free oxygen--that is, diatomic oxygen, or O2. It was all tied up in rock and water. For half a century, researchers have vacillated over whether the gases that were there favored the formation of life's starting materials (see sidebar, p. 1732). Without free oxygen, in any case, the first life that did appear by perhaps 3.5 billion years ago had to "breathe" elements such as iron, processing them to gain a mere pittance of energy.

For decades, scientists have argued about just how long the planet remained anoxic, and thus home to nothing but tiny, simple, slow-living microorganisms. 3

Life could not have originated spontaneously in the presence of oxygen. Every good scientist knows that! If there was free oxygen in the air, some of that would have been dissolved in the water, too, which would have prevented life from originating in the water. Therefore, there could not have been any oxygen in the air when life began.

The spontaneous origin of life from inanimate material is the foundation of the theory of evolution. Therefore, it cannot be questioned. The fact that life evolved is proof that there was no oxygen in the atmosphere to begin with.

But there is lots of oxygen in the air now. If there wasn’t any to begin with, where did it come from? Do water molecules spontaneously break apart into H2 and O? No. It just takes a little spark to make H2 and O join together and release energy. Do quartz crystals turn into silicon and release oxygen spontaneously? No, that doesn’t happen, either. Are there big clouds of oxygen in space that get sucked into our atmosphere as the Earth moves through them? Not as far as we know.

So, where did the oxygen in today’s atmosphere come from if it didn’t come from water, rocks, or space? That’s the problem evolutionists are trying to solve.

Not From Plants

The obvious, but clearly incorrect, answer is, “Plants converted carbon dioxide into free oxygen.”

Remember that the NASA web site said that nitrogen, oxygen, and argon add up to 78% + 21% + 1% = 100%. NASA says that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today might be as little as 0.01%, and certainly not more than 0.1%.

If you go to the U.S. Government Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center’s website, you will find a large table of greenhouse gas concentrations. A small part of that table looks like this: 4

Gas Pre-1750 concentration Current tropospheric concentration
Carbon dioxide (CO2) 280 ppm 337.3 ppm

Converting parts-per-million to percentages, we see that before 1750 the amount of carbon dioxide in the air was 0.028%. It is now up to 0.03373%, an increase of 0.00573%, which some people consider to be alarming.

One For One

Plants need one CO2 molecule to produce one carbon atom and one O2 gas molecule. For plants to have converted carbon dioxide into all the oxygen in the atmosphere today, there would have had to have been a time when the atmosphere was 21% carbon dioxide. Imagine the global warming that would have caused if a 0.00573% increase is significant!

Furthermore, despite the fact that man has cut down part of the Amazon rain forest, there are still a lot of green plants left on the Earth today. Those remaining plants are apparently unable to consume the extra 0.00573% of carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the air since 1750. Just imagine how many green plants there would have to be to consume nearly all of the carbon dioxide in an atmosphere that was more than one fifth carbon dioxide to begin with!

It is unreasonable to think that there were that many plants on Earth (including those in the sea), and that there was that much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to begin with.

Send in the Clowns

Therefore, the present isn’t the key to the past. Something else had to have been going on in the distant past. The fertile imaginations of evolutionists have come up with lots of ideas.

All animals need oxygen, but they haven't always had enough of it to reach their full potential. Earth developed a trace of oxygen--at least in the atmosphere--more than 2 billion years ago. That was just before the appearance of sophisticated cells called eukaryotes in the fossil record. Eukaryotes went on to give rise to animals, but not until about 575 million years ago. Why the wait? For half a century, paleontologists have speculated that only then did oxygen levels rise high enough to support large, active creatures. The evidence for such a jump in oxygen, however, has been sparse and indirect. 5

We think it would be more accurate to say, “The evidence for such a jump in oxygen is purely imaginary.”

There's still no single, thoroughly unambiguous "paleobarometer" for ancient oxygen, says geochemist Louis Derry of Cornell University. An odd shift in the mix of sulfur isotopes marked the first appearance of even a trace of oxygen 2.4 billion years ago (Science, 17 June 2005, p. 1730). And the isotopes of trace metals such as molybdenum have been used to infer that the little oxygen in the atmosphere between 2.4 billion and 0.58 billion years ago had not penetrated below surface ocean waters. 6

That’s right; they try to infer oxygen levels in water from the levels of isotopes of other elements. We aren’t making this up! Evolutionists realize the inconsistencies in their fables and ask such questions as,

Why did oxygen not appear in Earth's atmosphere until hundreds of millions of years after photosynthesizing organisms first produced it? 7

Still, they state most authoritatively,

The oxygen in Earth's atmosphere is almost exclusively a product of photosynthesis. The transition from an early, virtually oxygen-free world to an irreversibly oxygenated one is linked to the first appearance and proliferation of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria. But whereas the first notable trace of persistent atmospheric oxygen has been dated to around 2.4 billion years ago, the fingerprints of cyanobacteria seem to stretch back as much as 2.7 billion years, if not further.

To explain this time lag, Kump and Barley (page 1033) argue that reactions between oxygen and reduced volcanic gases initially kept oxygen levels low. 8

Here’s the ironic thing. The fictional models they invented to explain how an Earth without oxygen in its atmosphere turned into an Earth with oxygen in its atmosphere actually predict TOO MUCH oxygen. Therefore, they have to come up with other models to get rid of it!

Most models of the early atmosphere predict appreciable, relatively constant oxygen production during the roughly 300 million years before atmospheric oxygenation. They therefore rely on vast and efficient sinks that consumed oxygen as fast as it was produced. A shift to a more oxidizing atmosphere would require a loss in the biosphere's ability to prevent the accumulation of oxygen.

One possible mechanism is a spurt of biomass burial at sea. During the short-term cycling of carbon in the biosphere, the decay of organic remains consumes much of the oxygen released during photosynthesis. Long-term burial of this organic matter as it settles to the sea floor steals food from carbon-respiring microbes, and so shifts the balance away from their oxygen-consuming metabolisms. 9

But when animals appeared, the atmosphere needed more oxygen. Therefore, they say,

But at the end of the Gaskiers glaciation, deep-sea oxygen appeared, reaching levels that would have required an atmospheric abundance roughly 15% of today's. That's about how much oxygen the first large animals--the odd disks, fronds, and spindles of the Ediacaran fauna--would have needed once they evolved from their presumably near-microscopic, wormy ancestors. And in Newfoundland, the first Ediacara appear 5 million years after the Gaskiers and the rise in oxygen. 10

Paleontologist Andrew Knoll of Harvard University agrees. The papers "advance the argument that Earth and life are closely related through time," he says. The cause of higher oxygen levels remains unclear. It may go back to the invasion of land by rock-weathering fungi and lichens, or a burst of mountain building. Cracking that one will take a lot more information. 11

Now, here is the current new report that makes this “Evolution in the News”.

But the strange case of the delayed rise of atmospheric oxygen isn't closed. The 2.7-billion-year-old biomarker record, although widely favoured, is not beyond challenge, with some researchers placing the onset of cyanobacterial production later, closer in time to the initial atmospheric oxygenation, and thus eliminating the problem highlighted by Kump and Barley. Others dispute the assumptions of high and consistent carbon burial during the Archaean. Still others posit that oxygenic photosynthesis began more than 3.7 billion years ago, basing this on carbon-isotope data that could point to oxygen production and inferences about early cycling of uranium in the ocean.

If these wrinkles in the story were not enough, the sulphur isotopes tell us only that the 'great oxidation event' 2.4 billion years ago demanded an increase in atmospheric oxygen content from less than 0.001% to slightly more than 0.001% of the present level, although greater change is possible. 12

Even more puzzling than the 300-million-year run-up to the Great Oxidation Event is what came next. The advent of oxygen ushered in geology's red beds and life's eukaryotes. Then, for a good billion years, the newcomer eukaryotic algae went nowhere evolutionarily, frozen in time as an advanced sort of green scum. And there is growing geochemical evidence that the Great Oxidation Event wasn't actually all that great. 13

Two years ago, an evolutionist made this observation:

These are tumultuous times in the study of the origin of life. The early ocean may have been even less hospitable for prebiotic chemistry than previously thought, and claimed evidence for the earliest signatures of life on Earth is being strongly challenged . Now a 30-year, albeit shaky, consensus on the nature of the early atmosphere may have to be reexamined, and the geochemical implications of an H2-rich early atmosphere will need to be scrutinized. This turmoil makes it a great time for young scientists to enter the field, but it also reminds us that some humility regarding our favorite models is in order. 14

We suggest instead that young scientists should not waste their time entering this field. They won’t be able to figure out how it happened because it never happened.

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1 http://web.archive.org/web/20080202142825/http://liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/academy/space/atmosphere.html
2 Kerr , Science, 17 June 2005, “EARTH SCIENCE: The Story of O2”, pp. 1730 - 1732, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.308.5729.1730. [In 2021, when updating the links in this article, we found a later (2008) article in Science with the same title, but different content. The later article is https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1162641.]
3 ibid.
4 http://cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/pns/current_ghg.html
5 Kerr, Science, 8 December 2006, “GEOCHEMISTRY: A Shot of Oxygen to Unleash the Evolution of Animals”, p. 1529, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.314.5805.1529
6 ibid.
7 Lyons. Nature, 30 August 2007, “Palaeoclimate: Oxygen's rise reduced”, pages 1005-1006, https://www.nature.com/articles/4481005a
8 ibid.
9 ibid.
10 Kerr, Science, 8 December 2006, “GEOCHEMISTRY: A Shot of Oxygen to Unleash the Evolution of Animals”, p. 1529, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.314.5805.1529
11 ibid.
12 Lyons. Nature, 30 August 2007, “Palaeoclimate: Oxygen's rise reduced”, pages 1005-1006, https://www.nature.com/articles/4481005a
13 http://web.archive.org/web/20080202142825/http://liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/academy/space/atmosphere.html
14 Chyba, Science, 13 May 2005, “ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCE: Rethinking Earth's Early Atmosphere”, pp. 962 - 963, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1113157